The Homing Instinct of Dogs

July 21st, 2010 by admin

On 1 June, it was reported in The Daily Telegraph that a nervous whippet-terrier cross named Jack, who had fled into woods whilst on a country walk with his owners, had somehow made his way home to Penistone (sic), South Yorks, along an unfamiliar and hazardous 15-mile route that  would have involved his crossing both a by-pass and the M1 motorway. His delighted owner discovered him asleep on the doorstep, exhausted and with his feet covered in sores, a day and a half after he had gone missing. The case is further remarkable evidence of the homing instinct of dogs.

Perusing that obscure but delightful monograph, Recollections of the Early Days of the Vine Hunt, by a Sexagenarian (1865), I discover two more. The anonymous author is Edward Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s favourite nephew. He writes (p.17) that, in the mid-18th century, Lord Craven would bring his hounds every season to Dummer, near Basingstoke, and hunt the adjoining country. ‘Two or three draft hounds had been sent by Lord Craven to Blair Athol in Scotland, and had been taken part of the way by sea, but found their way back to the kennel at Dummer in some marvellously short space of time.’

He further writes: ‘A relation of mine knew of an instance somewhat similar. A neighbour of his, who kept harriers in the Cotswold Hills, had sent a hound to a pack in Essex, about twenty miles beyond London; I do not know whether on foot or in a carriage. When he was taken out with the pack in Essex, he was observed to be with them when the first hare was killed, but was missed soon afterwards. Some time in the next day, he was found at his old kennel in Gloucestershire. Both these cases seem to prove that dogs are directed to their point by some inexplicable instinct, though they know nothing of the intermediate space which they have to traverse.’

Perhaps the most spectacular example is part of my own family legend. Victor Hugo had a poodle (not a toy poodle, rather the sturdy, water-retrieving type) named Baron, of whom he was very fond. Baron nevertheless demanded constant attention and interfered with his master’s writing. One evening, early in 1877, my grandmother’s grandfather, the Marquis de Faletans, was attending Hugo’s salon in his fourth floor apartment in Paris, at 21 rue de Clichy. Hugo noticed him making a fuss of the dog. ‘Does Baron please you?’ he said. ‘He’s yours!’ Eight days later they departed for Russia, where my ancestor was to reside for a time with his wife at Great Bokino, her country estate, some 200 miles south-east of Moscow.

Regular news was sent to the Hugos, but in mid-December, after a period of ominous silence, the Marquis reluctantly reported that the dog was missing, feared seized by a wolf or a bear.

Hugo, who had resigned himself to the loss, was roused from his bed on Christmas morning by his cook, who lived on the ground floor. An exhausted, emaciated Baron had appeared on the doorstep, and announced himself with frantic barks. Old Hugo was touched to the core, and amazed that Baron had travelled a distance of nearly 2,000 miles in less than a month. He resolved that they should never again be parted, and, indeed, Baron accompanied the family to Guernsey and later to a new apartment in Paris, where he died, a few months before his master, in 1884. Despite extensive investigations, none of the details of his incredible journey had ever been discovered.


1 comment

  1. Claire says:

    Then there is The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford describing the journey of 2 dogs and a cat across Canada – synopsis on Book subsequently made into a Disney film